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SMC hosts first ETS Entrepreneur Academy

Jossalyn Rogalski wondered how Lyons Industries decided to produce bath products. Dowagiac Mayor Donald Lyons, addressing Educational Talent Search’s inaugural Entrepreneur Academy July 23 at Southwestern Michigan College, recalled introducing plumbing vents to the mobile home industry. Injection-molded plastic pieces three inches tall by two inches in diameter sold for 49 cents. “We sold 17,000 in 1970 and 19,000 in 1971,” Lyons said. “By 1975, we had sold over a million.” But Lyons knew he needed to identify something he could sell for $49 to sustain growth. “As we developed more products, we found any time we dealt with something plumbing-related made from plastic, that venture was successful. I didn’t start with a product, just the knowledge I couldn’t work for somebody else.” Now, the four-acre Lyons factory on M-62 West run by his son Lance employs 125 people.

Lyons always made public service a business component, from Dowagiac’s school board to his 21 years as mayor. SMC in 1985 named the Dale A. Lyons Building for his father’s distinguished service as Board of Trustees vice chairman.

Retirement hasn’t dimmed Lyons’ business passion. “One of my hobbies” is counseling fellow entrepreneurs. A breast-cancer survivor developing a line of “cosmeceuticals” in her basement enjoyed success, but struggled to keep pace with demand. Lyons suggested she find a manager and contract packager, then focus on her strong sales ability.

Rogalski, a Dowagiac Union High School junior, will attend SMC this fall through an Early College program. She felt torn between zoology and starting a salon/spa. Lyons imparted an immediate networking lesson by offering to connect her to someone he knows at Potawatomi Zoo.

Cherwasha Hill, Cassopolis senior, is coming to SMC/Ferris State University for early childhood education. DUHS junior Arianna Conley is interested in social work. Junior Shelby Whitaker is transferring to DUHS from Coloma. Marcellus senior Stephanie Bigelow, also destined for SMC, is interested in the arts, from making candles and soap to drawing cartoons and nature photography.

“I am the best business person you’ll ever meet,” Lyons said. “I can say that because I’ve made every mistake in the book. I never had a failure that wasn’t a wonderful idea. Risking failure deters some people, unfortunately. Take away from this the notion you owe it to yourself to take some risks. I learned more from my failures than my successes.” Lyons said two common mistakes are overestimating market size and underestimating costs. “Start small, start cautious and buy good used equipment rather than cheap equipment.”

On July 25, the Entrepreneur Academy continued with a panel discussion including Rebecca Steenbeke of Blue Print Photography; Fifth Third Bank Cassopolis Financial Center Manager Jeremy Truitt of Dowagiac, who deejays weddings as a nine-year sideline; and City Councilman Pat Bakeman, owner of Bakeman Barbers. The panelists themselves network through Young Professionals of Greater Dowagiac.

“If you are a small-business owner,” said Steenbeke, who considered becoming a veterinarian, “you are first and foremost a business person who happens to take photos, cut hair or deejay. You will fail if you don’t have business skills to back up your artistic skills.” Steenbeke hails from Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, at the southern end of Vancouver Island. She expanded her photography sideline into a studio after her AM General job ended. She lived in France and Tahiti, joking her French literature degree is “super useful in Michigan.”

“If you fail to plan,” Truitt added, “plan to fail. But it’s only a failure if you let it stop you. Otherwise, it’s bumps on the road to success.” Truitt attended SMC before Central Michigan University.

After finishing Lansing Barber College in 1999, Bakeman lived in Detroit before returning home, where he announces Chieftain football games on WGTO. At one point in his career, he also considered teaching.

The ETS students toured Dowagiac’s farm market, where Baker’s Rhapsody and Wright Farms Market originated. “If there’s something you’re interested in,” Truitt said, “reach out to one of our small-business owners about job shadowing.”

The academy concluded July 26, traveling to Michigan State University for a performance of “The Lion King.”

ETS, a federal TRiO program, operates from SMC’s Dowagiac campus and serves 750 Brandywine, Cassopolis, Dowagiac, Edwardsburg and Marcellus sixth-12th graders, developing good study habits and providing career, post-secondary education and financial aid information.